The Frau reclines into her seat, smoking a fine cigar; she distracts herself with artistic integrity, blissfully ignorant of the stomping boots of war outside her studio. This duly summarizes Jordan Harrison’s Amazons and their Men as presented by Forum Theatre. Accompanied by the dual-direction of Forum’s artistic director Michael Dove and Elissa Goetschius, Harrison’s play takes on a colorful approach – as a collaborative internal monologue, an unauthorized memoir, and a trip through development hell circa 1939. The Frau is German wunderkind filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (in everything but name), and this is the story of her vision unfulfilled. At a condensed seventy-five minutes, Amazons is wholly captivating theatre.
A little dose of history prefaces the story, regardless of its cloak of anonymity. After Riefenstahl’s cajoling with the Nazi Party led to the financing of her successful documentaries Der Sieg des Glaubens and the more traditionally-associated Triumph of the Will, the artist desperately wanted to produce her passion project – a film adaptation of Kleist’s Penthesilea. Eerily centered around the titular Amazon queen who falls in love with war hero Achilles, the Frau is attracted by the playwright’s radical changes – where the Amazonian dies not by Achilles’ hand, but by the hands of the collective Grecian warmongers. The minister of propaganda continues to keep the Frau in check through pointed telegrams; she preoccupies herself through the angling of cameras and focusing of lenses. The Frau has no time to be bothered with politics – she’s an artist!
The Man plays Achilles, a mythological figure whose fierce heterosexuality actually puts him at odds with his own orientation. He maintains a casual relationship with the Boy – the telegram-boy-turned-actor – whose role as Achilles’ comrade Patroclus effectively blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Their relationship visibly frustrates the Frau, who is not only offended by their “abhorrent” sexualities, but because their employment protects them from the Nazi regime – as they are respectively of Jewish and Gypsy heritage. The Frau has no trouble concealing their race from the Reich, but they continue to threaten her artistic vision with their lifestyles. The show must go on.
The recognizable Jjana Valentiner (whose work I also admired in Studio Theatre’s 2ndStage production of F-cking A) brings bombastic edge to our Frau, who becomes an Amazonian in her own right. As both the story’s director and the center of attention, her toughened voice comes in handy when handing out orders. In response to those believing Valentiner is supposed to be portraying Riefenstahl, let me emphasize that Harrison’s script covers the historical ground abstractly. While this story is grounded in some fact, the parallels between the artist’s choice of material and her eventually-tarnished reputation set the scene for the ensemble.
Daniel Eichner and Jay Saunders, who play the Man and Boy respectively, never exaggerate their characters’ conflict with the cultural zeitgeist of racial purity. Rather, the brief snippets of their relationship are portrayed as mere obstacles in the Frau’s plans rather than an angry statement. Laura Harris, as the Frau’s younger sister and actor, serves up the play’s voice of reason in adequate doses, along with the added comic relief. Her career as a dying extra gets its share of giggles in this otherwise tragic story.
Lighting designer Andrew Griffin’s use of shadows and sepia-toned lights give the space the feel of a William Wyler thriller, and along with the Sunset Blvd theatrics of its cast, make Dove and Goetschius’ production quite a success. More so than Leni Riefenstahl could say about Penthesilea.
Amazons and Their Men
by Jordan Harrison
co-directed by Michael Dove and Elissa Goetschius
presented by Forum Theatre in partnership with Round House Theatre
reviewed by Phil Colabro
AMAZONS AND THEIR MEN